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A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One’s (Work’s) Own

A Place of One's (Work's) Own

    I’m moving this month, and one of the things I’m looking for in a new apartment, even though I live alone, is a second bedroom where I can put up an office. My current place is a small 1-bedroom, and while there is a little computer “nook” in one corner of the living room, it’s just not working for me.

    I’d noticed my productivity falling off soon after I moved in, but having just gone through a break-up, I assumed it was just normal post-relationship trauma and that it would bounce back once I got back on my feet.

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    It hasn’t.

    For a long time I told myself I was just unusually busy, but that’s not it – my workload hasn’t increased. It wasn’t until the last few weeks that I’ve realized: I felt busier than usual because I wasn’t getting as much done. Where I used to be on schedule, or even ahead, with most of my work, I’ve been rushing to finish things at the last minute, which has kept me perpetually on the cusp of being behind, and occasionally good and fully late.

    One of the biggest factors in all this is not having a clearly defined workspace. My apartment is simply too small – I’ve been here 10 months and I’ve still got a wall of boxes that I haven’t been able to unpack! But the worst part is that I’ve ended up using the same small space to eat, work, and relax in. And that’s simply no good.

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    Here’s the thing: when you live and work in the same place, both living and working suffer. When you’re just trying to relax – say, by watching a movie or reading on the couch – your work-life is still there. And when you’re trying to get some work done, your daily life is all around you – the stack of magazines under the coffee table, the TV, the stereo, the book you’re reading draped over the sofa arm.

    We get conditioned by certain places. Sitting down in an upright chair at a desk primes us to work; sinking into a sofa tells the body that it’s time to relax. When we mix the two – I’ve been working on the sofa a lot with my laptop – the signals get crossed, and the mind  tries to go in two ways at once.

    So, for instance, last month I taught an evening class four nights a week at the community college. I’d get home at around 9:30 or 10:00 pm and pick up my book or switch on the TV. But every night, this little knot of tension would rise up in my chest, this anxious feeling that I was forgetting something, that I was slacking off. In the daytime, when I was actually working, I’d keep getting drowsy, or my mind would wander, or I’d be tempted to check the TV – you know, just to see.

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    This isn’t a quirk of my personality. Well, not just a quirk of my personality. Psychologists have found consistently that environmental cues can trigger certain states of mind in us, making us work harder or move more slowly.

    In a study at Stanford, for instance, a group of subjects was primed with objects related to business and office life (like boardroom tables and briefcases) while a control group was primed with neutral objects (kites, toothbrushes). Tests performed after the priming showed that those whose minds had been directed towards business became more competitive and less cooperative than those whose priming was not business-oriented.

    In practical terms, that means that just seeing the accoutrements of business life can make us more competitive – which is good, since usually when we’re around such objects we’re in the business world where we need to be more competitive.

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    Priming can have all sorts of odd effects. It can make young people move more slowly (after unscrambling sentences containing words like “Florida”, “wrinkled”, and “gray”); it can make people more likely to clean up after themselves (in a room scented with cleaning fluid); it can even make us smarter (students asked to picture themselves as a professor scored higher on a cognitive tests than students asked to picture themselves as a soccer hooligan)!

    So what cues are priming me when I sit down to work in the same space where I relax, or vice versa? My pencil cup and laser printer might be telling me “it’s workin’ time!” while my cozy blanket and TiVo remote suggest “it’s playtime!”.

    It’s clearly important to keep these spaces – and their signals – better-defined. If I were moving in today, I think I would have divided the room up into a clear relaxing area and working area. Instead, I’ll be moving soon, and my first priority is a clear working area, a second bedroom that’s “work only” so I can “go to work” in the morning and have some sense of separation from the rest of my life – and when I’m done, a place I can leave and “come home” from.

    By the way, as a single guy, I often eat dinner on my sofa as well. Which may be why I’m always hungry when I’m working…

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    Last Updated on July 8, 2020

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    3 Techniques for Setting Priorities Effectively

    It is easy, in the onrush of life, to become a reactor – to respond to everything that comes up, the moment it comes up, and give it your undivided attention until the next thing comes up.

    This is, of course, a recipe for madness. The feeling of loss of control over what you do and when is enough to drive you over the edge, and if that doesn’t get you, the wreckage of unfinished projects you leave in your wake will surely catch up with you.

    Having an inbox and processing it in a systematic way can help you gain back some of that control. But once you’ve processed out your inbox and listed all the tasks you need to get cracking on, you still have to figure out what to do the very next instant. On which of those tasks will your time best be spent, and which ones can wait?

    When we don’t set priorities, we tend to follow the path of least resistance. (And following the path of least resistance, as the late, great Utah Phillips reminded us, is what makes the river crooked!) That is, we’ll pick and sort through the things we need to do and work on the easiest ones – leaving the more difficult and less fun tasks for a “later” that, in many cases, never comes – or, worse, comes just before the action needs to be finished, throwing us into a whirlwind of activity, stress, and regret.

    This is why setting priorities is so important.

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    3 Effective Approaches to Set Priorities

    There are three basic approaches to setting priorities, each of which probably suits different kinds of personalities. The first is for procrastinators, people who put off unpleasant tasks. The second is for people who thrive on accomplishment, who need a stream of small victories to get through the day. And the third is for the more analytic types, who need to know that they’re working on the objectively most important thing possible at this moment. In order, then, they are:

    1. Eat a Frog

    There’s an old saying to the effect that if you wake up in the morning and eat a live frog, you can go through the day knowing that the worst thing that can possibly happen to you that day has already passed. In other words, the day can only get better!

    Popularized in Brian Tracy’s book Eat That Frog!, the idea here is that you tackle the biggest, hardest, and least appealing task first thing every day, so you can move through the rest of the day knowing that the worst has already passed.

    When you’ve got a fat old frog on your plate, you’ve really got to knuckle down. Another old saying says that when you’ve got to eat a frog, don’t spend too much time looking at it! It pays to keep this in mind if you’re the kind of person that procrastinates by “planning your attack” and “psyching yourself up” for half the day. Just open wide and chomp that frog, buddy! Otherwise, you’ll almost surely talk yourself out of doing anything at all.

    2. Move Big Rocks

    Maybe you’re not a procrastinator so much as a fiddler, someone who fills her or his time fussing over little tasks. You’re busy busy busy all the time, but somehow, nothing important ever seems to get done.

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    You need the wisdom of the pickle jar. Take a pickle jar and fill it up with sand. Now try to put a handful of rocks in there. You can’t, right? There’s no room.

    If it’s important to put the rocks in the jar, you’ve got to put the rocks in first. Fill the jar with rocks, now try pouring in some pebbles. See how they roll in and fill up the available space? Now throw in a couple handfuls of gravel. Again, it slides right into the cracks. Finally, pour in some sand.

    For the metaphorically impaired, the pickle jar is all the time you have in a day. You can fill it up with meaningless little busy-work tasks, leaving no room for the big stuff, or you can do the big stuff first, then the smaller stuff, and finally fill in the spare moments with the useless stuff.

    To put it into practice, sit down tonight before you go to bed and write down the three most important tasks you have to get done tomorrow. Don’t try to fit everything you need, or think you need, to do, just the three most important ones.

    In the morning, take out your list and attack the first “Big Rock”. Work on it until it’s done or you can’t make any further progress. Then move on to the second, and then the third. Once you’ve finished them all, you can start in with the little stuff, knowing you’ve made good progress on all the big stuff. And if you don’t get to the little stuff? You’ll have the satisfaction of knowing that you accomplished three big things. At the end of the day, nobody’s ever wished they’d spent more time arranging their pencil drawer instead of writing their novel, or printing mailing labels instead of landing a big client.

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    3. Covey Quadrants

    If you just can’t relax unless you absolutely know you’re working on the most important thing you could be working on at every instant, Stephen Covey’s quadrant system as written in The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People: Powerful Lessons in Personal Change might be for you.

    Covey suggests you divide a piece of paper into four sections, drawing a line across and a line from top to bottom. Into each of those quadrants, you put your tasks according to whether they are:

    1. Important and Urgent
    2. Important and Not Urgent
    3. Not Important but Urgent
    4. Not Important and Not Urgent

      The quadrant III and IV stuff is where we get bogged down in the trivial: phone calls, interruptions, meetings (QIII) and busy work, shooting the breeze, and other time wasters (QIV). Although some of this stuff might have some social value, if it interferes with your ability to do the things that are important to you, they need to go.

      Quadrant I and II are the tasks that are important to us. QI are crises, impending deadlines, and other work that needs to be done right now or terrible things will happen. If you’re really on top of your time management, you can minimize Q1 tasks, but you can never eliminate them – a car accident, someone getting ill, a natural disaster, these things all demand immediate action and are rarely planned for.

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      You’d like to spend as much time as possible in Quadrant II, plugging away at tasks that are important with plenty of time to really get into them and do the best possible job. This is the stuff that the QIII and QIV stuff takes time away from, so after you’ve plotted out your tasks on the Covey quadrant grid, according to your own sense of what’s important and what isn’t, work as much as possible on items in Quadrant II (and Quadrant I tasks when they arise).

      Getting to Know You

      Spend some time trying each of these approaches on for size. It’s hard to say what might work best for any given person – what fits one like a glove will be too binding and restrictive for another, and too loose and unstructured for a third. You’ll find you also need to spend some time figuring out what makes something important to you – what goals are your actions intended to move you towards.

      In the end, setting priorities is an exercise in self-knowledge. You need to know what tasks you’ll treat as a pleasure and which ones like torture, what tasks lead to your objectives and which ones lead you astray or, at best, have you spinning your wheels and going nowhere.

      These three are the best-known and most time-tested strategies out there, but maybe you’ve got a different idea you’d like to share? Tell us how you set your priorities in the comments.

      More Tips for Effective Prioritization

      Featured photo credit: Mille Sanders via unsplash.com

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